Water Closet

The smallest room in the former Wilson residence is located within the first story’s northeastern-most section. Mrs. John S. (Saluda Van Metre) Dunbar, Sr., a post-Wilson family occupant of the property recalled during an oral history interview in 1969, that this room once housed a toilet. For decades the tiny space served as a storage room, never opened for public viewing. During extensive structural analysis of the property, Christopher Quirk, a preservation architect with John Milner & Associates of Louisville, Kentucky discovered clues about the room that support Mrs. Dunbar’s recollections of its original use.

Many factors support the theory that the Wilson family’s new home may have featured the latest in plumbing technology for its time. A number of Columbia businesses advertised such supplies and fixtures during the Reconstruction era in The Phoenix, Columbia’s newspaper. Joseph and Jessie Wilson were both educated individuals who would have been aware of trends in modernization. This is particularly true when taking into consideration that the Wilsons became familiar with Andrew Jackson Downing’s plans that featured water closets, if not on their own, then through their home’s designer, G.T. Berg,.

Two major clues to the room’s original function remain. The first involves spacing of structural members within the room’s northeast corner where studs form a pipe chase that runs the entirety of the room’s original height. This cavity is concealed by a beaded board that meets original plaster work on both sides. When looking into the room, this panel is easily distinguishable from the adjacent plaster. If need be, this panel could have been removed for inspection or repair of the waste pipes that ran within it, a design concept of the time. This arrangement also is consistent with Downing’s interest in concealing piping for such devices from view.

A second clue that indicates the house was originally outfitted with plumbing lurks beneath the room. A“Y”-shaped cast iron waste pipe, located within the building’s cellar and featuring lead soldered seams, appears to be a plumbing remnant once part of an early system that carried waste water from the water closet and the adjacent bathing room. The destination of this waste remains undetermined; however, the rooms’ contents could have been carried by gravity to a septic field or cesspool (holding area) that could have been cleaned out by workers who emptied privies throughout the city. This form of waste removal preceded today’s modern sanitary sewer system that runs throughout Columbia and its suburbs.

Unfortunately, while oral history indicates that at one point this room contained an early toilet, no evidence of the water closet’s original appearance remains. Memories of the upstairs service chambers that are located directly above included a detailed description of a galvanized commode situated within a paneled wooden frame. This description is consistent with the era of the building’s construction, as porcelain toilets had not yet made their way into mainstream American households. In this instance, perhaps the Wilsons’ water closet featured a basic wooden box with a metal hopper or liner covered by a hinged "seat" (a fold-down wooden panel with a hold in it) that could be raised when the hopper was used for dumping chamber pots. A second wooden top may have acted as a lid. The device also may have served as a slop sink in which chamber pots would be emptied. If not plumbed for running water, the “modern” convenience that the Wilson family included in its new home was a transitional device that bridged the gap between “night closets” and flushable toilets.

HS-1 Close-stool, circa-1870.

Historic Columbia Foundation collection, HCF 1977.118.1

Portable toilets, or close-stools, were not much more than a fancy enclosure for chamber pots. Made of wood and ceramic or metal, they essentially brought the outhouse inside. With no running water, these hygiene devices still required waste removal to a location outside of the residence. However, their placement within a home could prove beneficial from the point of comfort on cold nights or in the event of illnesses that led to frequent use. With the advent of flushing toilets, such devices became obsolete. This mid-19th-century version features arm rests which would pull upward with the opening of the device’s hinged lid. That some close-stools survived can be attributed to their construction, which conceals their function when the lid is closed, making the piece look like a harmless cabinet or chest.

Design-wise the placement of the family’s water closet is consistent with period concerns of locating such rooms to the rear of buildings and out of the public realm. Not only is this space located as far away from other activities as possible, access to the small chamber is achieved only after going through either a small vestibule, or entryway, off of the rear porch or by walking through the downstairs bathing room. The presence of this chamber within the Wilson family’s house (and within other houses of the era) did not preclude the existence of outside bathrooms or privies. Such a free-standing building most likely would have been present to accommodate the needs of domestic servants who would have not shared the more modern facilities with their employers.

HS-2 Outhouse, 1920 Pulaski Street, Columbia, South Carolina, April 1964.

Image courtesy South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina - Joseph E. Winter Collection, Accession no. 13025.2164

For some Columbia neighborhoods within original city limits, outhouses or privies remained in use through the 1960s. Little change would have taken place in the technology used here from that of almost a century earlier during post-Civil War Reconstruction. While it appears that the Wilson family enjoyed modern conveniences within their new home, the property almost certainly would have featured an outhouse for their servants to utilize. This particular privy once serviced a residence located just two blocks from the South Carolina Governor’s Mansion.

Other interesting features include a surviving gas jet nozzle and a window, which though modified over time, has been returned to its original dimensions during Phase I of the building’s rehabilitation. That this small room was plumbed originally for lighting indicates that it was intended to be used at all times of the day and night. Also, the presence of a window would have afforded the water closet’s users relief from unpleasant odors, particularly during the warmer and more humid spring and summer months in Columbia.

HS-3Gas bracket, circa-1865-1875.

Historic Columbia Foundation collection, HCF 00.310.1

Introduced into Columbia during the 1850s, gas was considered to be an advancement in illuminating streets, public buildings, and private residences. Immediately following the Civil War citizens often dealt with interrupted service. However, the fact that the Wilson family opted to incorporate gas brackets (wall mounted devices) and gasoliers (ceiling-mounted fixtures) into their home’s design indicates this amenity was considered a must for modern living.

Butler’s pantries typically featured storage for food presentation and consumption including dishes, silver, and table linens. However, thus far, no evidence has been uncovered that indicates this room had any built-in cabinetry. This absence may be explained in at least two ways. Such furnishings may have been free-standing. Or, perhaps the original built-ins were removed at some point and their traces have been obscured through later paint. Regardless, this room would have served as a transitional area between the private, more utilitarian kitchen and food storage spaces into the public realm of the dining room, located immediately to its south. It most likely contained a number of items used in both everyday living and for meals enjoyed during special occasions.

Historic Paint Scheme Restoration - Baseboard

Historic Paint Scheme Restoration - Wall

Historic Paint Scheme Restoration - Door